The film was produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros. It was shot throughout 1990 on sound stages at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California with location shots done at Death Valley National Park. It was released on June 14, 1991 in the United States to positive critical reception and a moderate box office return. The film was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects at the 64th Academy Awards.
The film later saw greater success on home video, and received a sequel, Fallout 2, in 1998.
In Vault 13, the Water Chip, a computer chip responsible for the water recycling and pumping machinery of the vault, malfunctions. With 150 days before the Vault's water reserves run dry, the Vault overseer, Jacoren (John Malkovich), tasks our unnamed protagonist, the Vault Dweller (Christian Slater), with finding a replacement.
The Vault Dweller travels to Vault 15, the closest known Vault that may be able to provide help, but finds it collapsed into ruins and abandoned. The survivors of Vault 15 have founded a town named Shady Sands, and the Vault Dweller aides them in fighting the Khans, a group of raiders that attack the town, and radscorpions, mutated scorpions that plague the town's herds. The Vault Dweller then travels south to Junktown, where they help the mayor, Killian Darkwater (Kevin Costner), bring the corrupt casino head Gizmo (John Goodman) to justice. Further south the Vault Dweller finds The Hub, a bustling merchant city, where the Vault Dweller hires water caravans to aid Vault 13 and extend their estimated survival by 100 days. With clues from the Hub, the Vault Dweller travels to Necropolis, a city of mutated humans called ghouls who are under occupation by large mutated humans, dubbed Super Mutants. Under the city, the Vault Dweller finds Vault 12 and recovers a water chip.
Upon returning with the chip, the Vault is saved, but Jacoren is concerned about the Vault Dweller's reports of the Super Mutants. Believing the mutations are too widespread and extreme to be natural, and that they pose a threat to the Vault, Jacoren charges the Vault Dweller to find the source of the mutations and stop them. The Vault Dweller finds and joins the Brotherhood of Steel - remnants of a top-secret genetic research program involving the U.S. Army that survived the war, and continues to research advanced technology. The Brotherhood supplies the Vault Dweller with equipment and information on the Super Mutants, which so happen to be directly related to the genetic research they conducted before the war: a mutagen called the Forced Evolutionary Virus, which can be used to mutate humans into Super Mutants, but leaves all such mutants sterile as a side effect. The Vault Dweller travels to the Boneyard - the ruins of Los Angeles - and finds out that the cult-like Children of the Cathedral operating around the Wasteland are a front created by the Super Mutants' Master (John Hurt), who is using the Children to preach his message to wastelanders and get them to submit to him peacefully.
The Vault Dweller explores the Cathedral of the Children and finds a prototype Vault beneath it, from which the Master commands his Super Mutant army. Disguised as one of the Children, the Vault Dweller infiltrates the Vault and destroys the Master. The Vault Dweller travels north to a military base, where the Super Mutant army was using the Forced Evolutionary Virus to mutate humans into Super Mutants, bolstering their numbers. The Vault Dweller destroys the base, stopping the creation of more Super Mutants and splintering their army. The Vault Dweller returns to the Vault and is greeted at the entrance by Jacoren. Jacoren is happy that the Vault's safety is secured, but fears the Vault Dweller's experiences have changed them, and that hero worship of them in the Vault may encourage others to leave. For the greater good of the Vault and to preserve its isolation, the Vault Dweller is exiled into the Wasteland.
- Christian Slater as Vault Dweller
- John Hurt as The Master
- John Malkovich as Jacoren
- Ricardo Montalban as Aradesh
- María Conchita Alonso as Tandi
- John Goodman as Gizmo
- Kevin Costner as Killian Darkwater
- Vernon Wells as Garl Death-Hand
- Martin Kove as Rhombus
- Jim Varney as Harold
- Kirk Douglas as Maxson
- Vincent Price as Morpheus
- Marsha Mason as Jain
- Brian Blessed as The Lieutenant
- Kurtwood Smith as Butch Harris
- Chuck Norris as Tycho
- Rik Mayall as Loxley
- Vincent D'Onofrio as Decker
- Lou Ferrigno as Harry
- Hart Bochner as Seth
- Vic Armstrong as Cabbot
- Danny Trejo as Vinnie
- Pam Grier as Gwen
- Dick Miller as Kane
- Jane Lynch as Jasmine
- Ed O'Neill as Phil
- Buck as Dogmeat
- Vanessa Redgrave as The Master (Uncredited)
- Bill Murray as Jon Zimmerman (Cut)
- Jennifer Connelly as Razor (Cut)
- Steve Buscemi as Set (Cut)
- Linda Blair as Theresa (Cut)
- John Lithgow as ZAX 1.2 (Cut)
- Jean Vander Pyl as Unit #462 (Cut)
Originally running at 187 minutes, the film was greatly trimmed before release to reach the 116 minutes of the theatrical cut. Characters, such as Razor (Jennifer Connelly) and Jon Zimmerman (Bill Murray), were cut from the film alongside their respective subplot.
Originally, the Junktown subplot ended with the Vault Dweller siding with Gizmo against Killian, deciding despite Gizmo's sleazy ways he is a stronger leader than the idealistic Killian. The studio sided against this, however, though footage of this was shot.
Rick Baker provided the special effects for the film, as well as designing the look for the Master, which took 4 hours for John Hurt to apply. The Master's voice went through several revisions, with the end product being a combination of John Hurt's normal voice, his voice auto-tuned, and inserts provided by an uncredited Vanessa Redgrave. The intention, not elaborated on in the film but explained in the script, was his vocal cords having deteriorated and being controlled by the large computer monitor under his head.
Original casting choices were Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon as the Master (who declined) and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Harry or the Lieutenant (who declined both, deeming the roles too small). Other characters cut from the theatrical cut included Set (Steve Buscemi), Theresa (Linda Blair), ZAX 1.2 (John Lithgow), and Unit #462 (Jean Vander Pyl).
References to other media were included in the casting of certain actors. Phil (Ed O'Neill) is the owner of Dogmeat (Buck), who gives it to the Vault Dweller. O'Neill is famous for portraying Al Bundy on the sitcom Married... with Children, and Dogmeat was also played by Buck, who was the dog on the show. The name, Dogmeat, is based off A Boy and His Dog. Vander Pyl as Unit #462 was in reference to Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons, even using the same voice. The English accent and physical appearance of Loxley (Rik Mayall) is a reference to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which Kevin Costner also starred in as the titular Robin Hood. Mayall was also cast as Loxley for his role as Lord Flashheart in Blackadder, where he'd coincidentally later play Robin Hood in Blackadder: Back & Forth.
In the original cut, the Vault Dweller promptly killed Jacoren after he had banished him to the wasteland. However, while test audiences reacted positively and even cheered it, the studio hated it and felt it made the Vault Dweller a villain. The scene was reshot, with Jacoren surviving in the theatrical cut.
The director's cut, released in 2006, reedited many cut scenes back into the main film bringing the theatrical 116 minute cut to 147 minutes. Previously cut characters are brought back such as Zimmerman, Razor, and Set alongside previously unseen deleted scenes such as the chess game against ZAX 1.2, a scene with a meeting of Vault 13 rebels led by Theresa, additional footage of the Deathclaw fight scene, inclusion of the Vault Dweller siding with Gizmo instead of Killian, and the killing of Jacoren.
The director's cut was met with positive reception by fans, however was considered by critics as too bloated and deciding the theatrical cut was right to cut most of the footage from the final film.